the intersection of queer theory and evolutionary psychology

The Age of Scientific Sexism (Mari Ruti) is a book that should have a wider audience. I can’t improve on the first three paragraphs to explain why the book is necessary:

I stumbled upon evolutionary psychology by chance. I was reading self-help guides on romantic relationships in preparation for writing my own treatise on love, which was, among other things, a critique of how the self-help industry manipulates straight women into thinking that they can control the course of their love lives by adhering to the right regimen of rules. I found that most of these guides resorted to blatant gender stereotyping–what I will in this book call “gender profiling.” Women were being seduced to believe that if they learned to profile men correctly, their ever-lasting happiness would follow. As has been the case at least since John Gray’s 1992 Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus, self-help gurus were unshaken in their conviction that men and women live in vastly different psychological, emotional, and sexual universes, and that their relationship problems are due to their inability to understand each other’s gender-specific needs, strengths, attributes, and confusions. There was little room for the possibility that couples might run into problems for the simple reason that they bring their unique personal experiences, unconscious motivations, existential struggles, histories of suffering, and points of vulnerability to the intimate encounter. Gender–and gender alone–was thought to be the cause of relationship troubles. Men and women were believed to fall nearly universally into the neat boxes of a rigid gender binary. And though there were occasional nods toward the idea that “some” men and women might deviate from the picture, the overall assumption was that the differences between them were self-evident, intrinsic, natural, and more or less immutable. The justification for this reasoning (when it was stated at all) was that our science–particularly evolutionary psychology–had “proven” its validity.

This is how I came to read upon evolutionary psychology. I decided to limit my research to arguments about sex, desire, and romantic behavior. And I chose to focus on books from the last two decades written for mainstream audiences by professional academics and researchers. That is, I was less interested in how evolutionary psychologists talk to each other in academic settings than in how they talk to non-academic readers. As my familiarity with the field increased, so did my astonishment: here was a scholarly field whose main aim seemed to be to convince non-specialist readers of the scientific validity of the worst gender platitudes of our culture. I discovered an entire field based on gender clichés of mind-numbing banality: while men are aggressive, women are nurturing; while men are autonomous, women are relational; while men need space, women need intimacy; while men are productive, women are reproductive; while men like sports, women like to cuddle; while men are willing to have sex with a telephone pole, women are coy and sexually modest; while men are attracted by youth, beauty, and feminine vulnerability, women are looking for men with power, status, and financial resources; while men are hardwired to cheat on their partners, women are the faithful sex; while men are aroused by porn, women need a lengthy courtship–flowers, conversation, expensive dinners, and flashy displays of devotion–to feel the slightest quiver of the needle. It was as if a time machine had dropped me in Mad Men‘s world of high-powered male executives bedding their young female secretaries while their long-suffering wives wisely chose to look the other way. The trouble was that this was not a fantasy world designed to comment on the gender relations of an earlier, less enlightened era. Rather, it was objective science. Or at least that’s what it tried to tell me it was.

As someone who has taught complex theories of gender and sexuality within the humanities for more than two decades, I found the world I had entered disorienting. This wasn’t because its arguments were difficult to follow. If anything, they seemed absurdly, almost childishly, simpleminded. What kept startling me was that scholars–any scholars–could believe that a strictly dichotomous approach to gender could yield any meaningful information about men and women. Had we not spent decades deconstructing the toxic binary of men and women? Had we not constructed erudite theories of how men and women are socialized into differentiated gender roles, so that even when observable gender differences exist, it’s impossible to attribute them to immutable laws of human nature? Had we not revealed the reductiveness of categorical thinking: its impossibility of capturing the intricacies of human experience, including the lived realities of gender and sexuality? Had we not emphasized the oppressiveness–the tremendous violence–of overgeneralizations in all areas of life, and in particular in the realm of gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, and related identity markers? Had we not shown that a generous attitude toward others entails respecting their irreducible singularity? Had we not noted that when we reduce others to walking caricatures, we subdue what is most alive, and thus most interesting, about them? Had we not, in short, illustrated that profiling people on the basis of preconceived notions of any kind makes us unethical in our interactions with them? We had; we had definitely done all of this! But evolutionary psychologists either had not read any of our work or had refused to give it any credence. It was as if the post-68 intellectual revolution within the academy had never happened.

In science, an idea gains credibility when multiple, independent lines of evidence converge on it. This is a paper published by Daphna Joel in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America:

Whereas a categorical difference in the genitals has always been acknowledged, the question of how far these categories extend into human biology is still not resolved. Documented sex/gender differences in the brain are often taken as support of a sexually dimorphic view of human brains (“female brain” or “male brain”). However, such a distinction would be possible only if sex/gender differences in brain features were highly dimorphic (i.e., little overlap between the forms of these features in males and females) and internally consistent (i.e., a brain has only “male” or only “female” features). Here, analysis of MRIs of more than 1,400 human brains from four datasets reveals extensive overlap between the distributions of females and males for all gray matter, white matter, and connections assessed. Moreover, analyses of internal consistency reveal that brains with features that are consistently at one end of the “maleness-femaleness” continuum are rare. Rather, most brains are comprised of unique “mosaics” of features, some more common in females compared with males, some more common in males compared with females, and some common in both females and males. Our findings are robust across sample, age, type of MRI, and method of analysis. These findings are corroborated by a similar analysis of personality traits, attitudes, interests, and behaviors of more than 5,500 individuals, which reveals that internal consistency is extremely rare. Our study demonstrates that, although there are sex/gender differences in the brain, human brains do not belong to one of two distinct categories: male brain/female brain.

The figure showing the “gender mosaic” is cool:

Each row represents a person, and each column is a a stereotypical gender behavior. See here for specifics. This is the same type of figure, but for regional brain volumes:

This would suggest that nearly everyone’s brain is “gender atypical” along some dimension or another, randomly chosen. Men face strong social pressure to be emotionally retarded, enforced by most people. All of this implies that most men have some shameful inner feminine thing about themselves. The shaming is a more effective means of social control if it could turn on anyone at any time.

Even in an essay that has all the signs of being progressive on the surface (“Look at what Scandinavia’s doing!”), men are discouraged from taking care of their own children in favor of doing capitalism harder. Because sociobiology. Apparently, Sweden has really generous paternity leave policies:

I felt compelled to find out if I was imagining it, and quickly discovered an explosion of new research demonstrating the dramatic impact that fatherhood has on men’s hormones – along with their affect and talent for staying attuned. A 2011 longitudinal study of 624 Filipino men showed evening testosterone dropping by a median of 34 per cent in the first month after becoming fathers (the most extreme case saw a drop of 75 per cent). Levels of oxytocin, the so-called ‘cuddle hormone’, almost double in fathers between the time the mothers become pregnant and the first months of fatherhood. Prolactin, the hormone that triggers lactation in women, was almost a fifth higher in fathers of infants than in non-fathers. Fatherhood also physically alters the brain. In a 2014 study, researchers scanned men’s brains in the first month after their children were born, and then again after the fourth month. It turned out that gray matter grew in areas linked to reward, attachment and complex decision-making.

These are the changes recorded in countries such as the United States, Canada and the Philippines, where mothers still do most of the childcare. But could the impact be even greater in Sweden, where men like me often take six months or more off work to be the primary carer for their babies? According to Kerstin Uvnäs-Moberg, who pioneered research into oxytocin at the Karolinska Institute, Sweden’s medical university, no one has tried to find out. ‘This is a unique experiment that we are performing right now,’ and the consequences might be profound.

Danger lurks!

But what happens to Sweden’s latte pappas when they return to their workplaces, their brains marinading in oxytocin and prolactin? How many, like me, find their priorities shifting in subtle but significant ways?…

Uvnäs-Moberg describes oxytocin as the opposite of the fight-flight system. ‘It is the calm and connection system: you reduce your arousal, you become calm, and you become friendly and not so anxious, and also your blood pressure gets lower. Your need to be at the top of a hierarchy decreases, and you become more interested in social networking and other affairs. That may be good when your babies are small, but after five years you may regret it.’

It could be that anyone, male or female, who combines parenthood with competitive careers and positions of power will, as a result, be a less patient and attentive parent. There might be a trade-off between being a status-hungry careerist and a nurturing parent, whatever your gender.

‘You as a journalist have flexibility, but I’m sure that if you are the head of an investment bank, it could be catastrophic,’ Uvnäs-Moberg argues. ‘What I see in the institutions where I’ve been working is that the real careerists don’t do this. There is a group of men that are so testosterone-linked, that I don’t think they will ever stay at home with the children.’

Yet big Swedish companies such as the tech giant Ericsson actively encourage their male workers to take longer parental leave, which suggests that Sweden’s latte pappas remain useful employees. Perhaps a temporary lull in the competitive drive of returning fathers is more than made up for by the retained expertise of the mothers better able to continue their careers.

Back at the drop-in centre, Lisa and Karin remain convinced that giving all fathers a six-month dose of hands-on parenting would vanquish forever the brash, aggressive, insensitive man. ‘If you are closely connected to a child,’ Karin says, ‘you can’t be tough and hard.’

The real message is in the rhetoric. Oxytocin “marinades” your brain (the technical term for when a small number of axons release small proteins in a few places). Consequences. Catastrophic. Vanquished forever.  You can’t be tough and hard, but you may begin to lactate. The author is supposedly cool with all this, but it reads like a cautionary tale.

Testosterone, oxytocin, etc. don’t have genders. They’re small molecules that bind to either nuclear receptors or G-protein-coupled receptors, causing changes in cell structure, excitability, and so on. If taking steroids gives you “bitch tits” because aromatase converts androgens to estrogens, are steroids estrogen pro-hormones and thus feminine? I’m so confused. The functions of our body parts don’t cleanly correspond to our intuitions or cultural ideas. You know you’re dealing with lazy thinking when individual chemicals or brain regions start to be “the love hormone” or “the memory place.”

Mari Ruti wouldn’t have ignored the obvious fact that this social phenomenon in Sweden is driven by economic policies:

Buss similarly argues that patriarchy results from the fact that women prefer dominant men with ample resources. That is, if men control resources around the world, it’s because women keep choosing such men (212-213). Never mind that in many societies, making a “choice” such as this is still the best way for women to ensure their comfort and well-being. Never mind that in many societies, women can’t easily access the highest-paying jobs (and are often paid less than men for the same work). And never mind that in modern America, there are increasing numbers of women who have no patience with dominant men no matter how many yachts these men possess. As I have suggested, one of the greatest things about women’s socioeconomic liberation is that it has freed many women to choose men who exhibit characteristics that are the very opposite of the patriarchal macho man. And one of the many things that is so terrible about poverty is that it makes it harder for disadvantaged women to do the same. Being able to be with a gentle man who is more interested in making conversation than in making money is often a privilege of those women who are able to make their own money. And I have no doubt that one reason evolutionary psychologists are so adamant about the dogmas of the field is that the number of such women has increased rapidly in recent decades, not because poverty has decreased but because middle-class women have entered the workforce. This trend is inherently threatening to those who prefer to explain patriarchy in terms of natural rather than social factors. And it is particularly threatening to those who wish to absolve men of all responsibility for patriarchy, who wish to argue, as Miller does, that from the perspective of evolutionary theory, neither sex deserves blame. Apparently, when it comes to men’s control over resources, no one–and least of all men–can be held accountable.

Imagine how much less domestic violence there would be if the government just gave everybody an apartment and didn’t make it degrading.

Aside from the large-scale politics, gender norms just plain make it impossible to love each other properly.

Take, for instance, the private background of suffering that has formed each of us. Some of us have suffered a lot more than others, but it’s safe to say that none of us has been able to fully escape heartache, disappointment, disenchantment, and other forms of emotional pain. The distinctiveness of our suffering has contributed to the distinctiveness of our character, so that it would be impossible to dissociate what is singular about us from the singularity of our history of suffering. The effort to reduce a given man or woman to the coordinates of gender blinds us to this intricate reality, making it impossible for us to respond appropriately when the ghosts of past suffering populate the relational space of the present, as they are prone to do, as they often insist on doing. That is, because the stereotypes make us emotionally robotic rather than innovative, they thwart our ability to adequately deal with the more pain-saturated dimensions of another person’s experience; they cause us to fall into overly simplistic patterns of relating that will in no way help us with the interpersonal challenges we face…

The more we focus on gender differences, the more we fortify them. In contrast, if we chose to highlight what unifies men and women–say, our vulnerability to suffering–we would quickly demolish the status quo of gendered thinking because we would invite both genders to step outside the borders of what they have been culturally conditioned to believe is their proper domain; we would expand the range of human potentialities available to all of us. Those who resist this type of opening up of the gender terrain often do so because they are unable (or unwilling) to embrace the uncertainties of relating, including the fact that there is no way for any of us to fully know the person we love…It would serve us much better to admit that whenever two people–men or women, straight or gay, or anything in between–relate on an intimate level, they must be prepared to deal with a degree of murkiness. It’s not just that another person is never fully transparent to us; it’s also that this person might not be fully transparent even to him- or herself. After all, many human motivations remain unconscious, so that we can hardly expect any more clarity from others than we can expect from ourselves. In this sense, our ability to relate to others ethically may, in some measure at least, be a matter of patience in relation to what remains opaque about them…

Among other things, when we admit that the other is always to some extent unknown and unknowable, we create space for transformation. If rigid assumptions about the other–including rigid gender stereotypes–impede change, the act of discarding our preconceived notions gives the other permission to evolve in directions that have nothing to do with our expectations. This type of flexibility, this type of interpersonal generosity, is what our gender profilers, inexplicably, cannot handle and often ridicule. Because they are convinced that gender profiling can help us avoid relationship failures, that it can fend off any and all unpleasant surprises, they are willing to trade away the one thing that seems essential to love, namely the willingness to honor the other’s integrity as a multifaceted individual. They treat people as pawns in a gendered game, obstinately clinging to the old order of gender relations while the rest of us step forward. They don’t seem to understand that the future belongs to those who are able to overcome what was misguided about the past.

Well, I’m not so sure the future has a direction. The larger point is more important: biology isn’t owned by rightwing trolls.

Depending on which scientist you ask, autism makes you saintly or ethically impaired.

Science (and history) are always interpretations of data. There are better and worse interpretations of the data. It’s also not true that the data uniformly support queer theory. It could all come down to testis-determining factor (also called SRY). From Why Sex Is Mostly Binary but Gender Is a Spectrum:

In 2005, a team of researchers at Columbia University validated these case reports in a longitudinal study of “genetic males”—i.e., children born with XY chromosomes—who had been assigned to female gender at birth, typically because of the inadequate anatomical development of their genitals. Some of the cases were not as anguished as David Reimer’s or C’s—but an overwhelming number of males assigned to female gender roles reported experiencing moderate to severe gender dysphoria during childhood. Many had suffered anxiety, depression, and confusion. Many had voluntarily changed genders back to male upon adolescence and adulthood. Most notably, when “genetic males” born with ambiguous genitals were brought up as boys, not girls, not a single case of gender dysphoria or gender change in adulthood was reported.

These case reports finally put to rest the assumption, still unshakably prevalent in some circles, that gender identity can be created or programmed entirely, or even substantially, by training, suggestion, behavioral enforcement, social performance, or cultural interventions. It is now clear that genes are vastly more influential than virtually any other force in shaping sex identity and gender identity—although in limited circumstances a few attributes of gender can be learned through cultural, social, and hormonal reprogramming. Since even hormones are ultimately “genetic”—i.e., the direct or indirect products of genes—then the capacity to reprogram gender using purely behavioral therapy and cultural reinforcement begins to tip into the realm of impossibility. Indeed, the growing consensus in medicine is that, aside from exceedingly rare exceptions, children should be assigned to their chromosomal (i.e., genetic) sex regardless of anatomical variations and differences—with the option of switching, if desired, later in life. As of this writing, none of these children have opted to switch from their gene-assigned sexes.

How can we reconcile this idea—of a single genetic switch that dominates one of the most profound dichotomies in human identity—with the fact that human gender identity in the real world appears in a continuous spectrum? Virtually every culture has recognized that gender does not exist in discrete half-moons of black and white, but in a thousand shades of gray. Even Otto Weininger, the Austrian philosopher now famous for his misogyny, conceded, “Is it really the case that all women and men are marked off sharply from each other … ? There are transitional forms between the metals and nonmetals; between chemical combinations and simple mixtures, between animals and plants, between phanerogams and cryptogams, and between mammals and birds. … The improbability may henceforth be taken for granted of finding in Nature a sharp cleavage between all that is masculine on the one side and all that is feminine on the other.”

In genetic terms, though, there is no contradiction: Master switches and hierarchical organizations of genes are perfectly compatible with continuous curves of behavior, identity, and physiology. The SRY gene indubitably controls sex determination in an on/off manner. Turn SRY on, and an animal becomes anatomically and physiologically male. Turn it off, and the animal becomes anatomically and physiologically female.

But to enable more profound aspects of gender determination and gender identity, SRY must act on dozens of targets—turning them on and off, activating some genes and repressing others, like a relay race that moves a baton from hand to hand. These genes, in turn, integrate inputs from the self and the environment—from hormones, behaviors, exposures, social performance, cultural role-playing, and memory—to engender gender. What we call gender, then, is an elaborate genetic and developmental cascade, with SRY at the tip of the hierarchy, and modifiers, integrators, instigators, and interpreters below. This geno-developmental cascade specifies gender identity. Genes are like single lines in a recipe that specifies gender. The SRY gene is the first line in the recipe: “Start with four cups of flour.” If you fail to start with the flour, you will certainly not bake anything close to a cake. But infinite variations fan out of that first line—from the crusty baguette of a French bakery to the eggy mooncakes of Chinatown.

It’s like…there is some degree of gender polarity, on a statistical or group level. Sexual reproduction is a way of generating genetic diversity for evolution to act upon. There are sexually reproducing species without a lot of sexual dimorphism. Fathers have daughters and mothers have sons, to pass on their genes.

Ideology is there to make people feel like they don’t have choices, when the status quo isn’t something anybody would sit down and design for themselves.

What makes our time period different is that we know these things, and the anthropologists have told us how much cultural variation exists. That is, we have a lot of cultural degrees of freedom, as humans. Before, little groups of humans used to run around calling themselves The Humans. Now we know that we’re making choices when we have a culture, which is always. I can’t understand how people become socialized and seem to want what our society is.

I don’t know if this article is a real thing or not:

Elizabeth McGrath, a somatic sex therapist in San Francisco who says that the “vast majority” of her clients work in tech, told the Guardian that she generally agrees with Thiel that people in Silicon Valley are not having much sex.

“There is not a lot of sexuality in the tech industry, in terms of it being fun, free, open, sensual,” McGrath said. “It all feels very stilted and neutered.”

Many of McGrath’s clients are men who “want to check the boxes of life” – which include romance and family – but are much more interested in their careers than exploring their sexuality. She described a common refrain from her clients as: “I’m in my late 20s, I feel like I should have a girlfriend, but I don’t necessarily know what’s in sex for me, what’s in relationships for me.”

Can neoliberalism account for why someone would want to be in a relationship, except as a means of obtaining hedonic units tracked in a life hacking app? Work productivity drops when the fun level drops below a customizable threshhold.

I want people to want something else.